Science Of Regenerating Body Parts: What Makes A Lizard’s Tail So Special?

Lizards, lizards everywhere. You hear about them on almost every continent, and they seem like strange leftovers from an ancient age, but the fact is, lizards are some of the most interesting creatures on Earth.

Imagine, what would it be like to live in a place that is full of lizards. Despite the scary appearance of lizards to many people, there is something else about them that makes them even more scary…or maybe just more intriguing.

What is it, you ask? Well, one part of their body seems to have a mind of its own!

cartoon-lizardThe Tale of the Lizard’s Tail

Lizards, just like any other creatures, have to find ways to deal with predators, i.e., the creatures that threaten the lizard’s survival. Different creatures have different ways of dealing with predators; some have particularly stylish and out of the box methods that will make your jaw drop, and lizards happen to be one of these special cases.

A typical lizard’s tail is more than just an extended piece of their body. While attached to a lizard’s body, it facilitates better mobility. However, the poor tail even helps lizards when it is no longer attached to its owner’s body. Such is the love and loyalty of a tail!

Autotomy: How Do Lizards (and others) Do It?

There is a name for this, actually; the ability of some animals and insects to cut off or amputate one or more body parts in response to a stressful situation. This is usually done to distract the predator, or to simply elude its grasp. The good thing about this is that the severed body can usually be regenerated or grown back.

So in the case of lizards, when they sense danger or a predator at their heels (don’t get too visual here), they are often seen to simply drop their tails.

lizard meme
Okay, so the lizard dropped its tail. Got it. What’s next?

Well, imagine some nasty creature following an innocent lizard (if the ‘innocent’ part is even possible). The lizard is giving it all for making speed, but it is not enough to outrun the predator. The lizard realizes that the predator will soon be all over it and it will just be another taste snack. Instead, it just drops off its tail and continues to sprint. Now, this dropped tail is a big deal in itself, and acts as though it has a brain of its own! It keeps wriggling and jumping and flipping (even after being severed from the main body). The predator is distracted for the moment, as it thinks that the thing moving and dancing in front of it is actually the lizard, but it’s not. By the time the predator realizes that it has been fooled by the cunning lizard and looks to resume its pursuit, poof!

The lizard’s gone!

Does the Tail Have a Brain of its Own?

Scientists have seen that the tail of a lizard’s body has pre-formed fracture lines or surfaces throughout it. This means that there are already some lines in the skin along which a lizard can drop its tail off. Due to this severance of a body part, there is a loss of some blood, as well as some muscles, nerves and skin. Some lizards have fat deposits in the tail too, so that is also lost.

The movement and wriggling of the tail even after being severed from the body is because the tail consists of part of the vertebral column. This column is responsible for transmitting signals all over the body through the central nervous system. As the tail is no longer connected, there is random firing of electric signals in the tail that don’t make any sense, as it does not have the brain to make sense out of the nerve impulses. Therefore, the tail just flails around mindlessly.

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The good thing about this defense mechanism is that a lizard is able to regrow its lost tail over a period of a few weeks.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could also regrow body parts in such a short time? However, I think the world would have a few too many superheroes!

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About the Author

Ashish is a Science graduate (Bachelor of Science) from Punjabi University (India). He spends a lot of time watching movies, and an awful lot more time discussing them. He likes Harry Potter and the Avengers, and obsesses over how thoroughly Science dictates every aspect of life… in this universe, at least.

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